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Voicing the Upright Piano

Fred Sturm, RPT


Kansas City 2011

Upright pianos are often given little attention beyond tuning and basic
regulation. We tend to take the upright piano as the manufacturer or dealer may have
delivered it, and accept that as the base line. We tighten screws, raise capstans, maybe
do a little more regulation, but rarely get into the sort of detailed prep work we may
provide for a grand. When you consider the fact that for most people, an upright piano
is the only piano they will possess and the primary one they will play, this attitude
doesnt make sense. An upright can be made into a relatively refined musical
instrument by using focused and organized techniques.
When it comes to tone quality, the same principles apply to both uprights and
grands, though we dont usually split as many hairs with uprights. In fact, many
factories and technicians omit the basic steps of traveling, squaring the hammers on
the shanks (burning shanks), mating hammer to strings, and needling hammers. These
steps can and must be done to achieve good results. The techniques are quite similar
to those used on grands, but must take into account the fact that the damper action is
in the way, that the action brackets often dont work as a support on the bench without
additional jigs, and that the hammer flange screw is less accessible.
I will include some shortcut procedures using steam or chemicals (alcohol,
water and softener in controlled combinations) for cases where time is too short, or
where hammers are too hard to needle. But I believe that needling is always
preferable.

The foundation for Voicing

Before voicing, we need to assume basic regulation has been done. I wont go
into those procedures here. We also assume hammerheads are tightly glued, other glue
joints (catchers, shanks to butts) are solid, and centerpinning is firm and free. These
things should be taken care of before the following procedures.

Traveling
For uprights, traveling is best done by using a broad straight edge to push the
hammers from rest position to strike position, and then allow them to fall back to rest
position. This should be done fairly rapidly so that any lateral motion of the hammer is
readily seen.
Mark the moving hammers on the side from which they are moving (which is
the side that needs to be shimmed to correct the travel). Use a code to indicate how
much they are moving: a double line for two layers of travel paper, for instance. Mark
the hammers of a whole section, or the whole action, remove each marked hammer in
turn, apply the amount of travel paper indicated to the side of the flange
corresponding to the mark, replace. Generally two or three passes per section will
suffice to achieve pretty refined travel, good enough for most uprights. Since upright
butts are relatively difficult to remove and replace, it is wise to be careful in marking
the relative amount of travel paper to be applied, and to check your work as you go to
calibrate how much paper has how much effect. I try to remove any given hammer
only once, and usually succeed for most of them.

Squaring hammers (burning shanks)


Hammers must strike the string squarely, and their mass must be evenly
distributed on each side of the hammer shank to the extent possible. Ideally, the
hammers are originally hung at the correct angle, but in reality, even the best hammer
hanging job needs to be refined by twisting shanks. Failure to do this will lead to
hammers that vibrate from side to side on their way to the string, losing power and
focus, creating an inconsistent blow on the strings, and causing wear to the hammer
felt and to the action centers.
The most precise and efficient way I have found to do this begins by pressing an
individual hammer forward to about the letoff point. While holding the hammer in this
position, center the hammer molding at the middle of the hammershank between the
neighboring hammers: make the spaces equal on each side by spacing the hammer
with a flange spacer or by loosening the screw and shifting it. Now let the hammer
return to the hammer rail. Note the spacing of the crown of the hammer between the
crowns of the neighboring hammers. If the spaces are not precisely equal when the
hammer is returned to rest position, heat the shank and twist it until they are. Check
your work by moving the hammer forward and back again. Precise judgment of
spacing is the key here.
The angled sections are somewhat more challenging. The eye (use one eye)
should be positioned so that it is sighting at the same angle as the hammers, and is
precisely in the middle between the two adjacent hammers. If you can see a bit of the
inside of each of the adjacent hammers, you are in the right spot. Angled hammers are
sometimes leaned slightly tenor hammers toward treble, bass hammers toward bass
but only a very small amount. I am not sure whether the small difference has a
significant effect. (It compensates for the natural flex of the hammershank caused by
the weight distribution of the angled hammer.) Squaring by the method described will
result in angled hammers appearing to scoop toward the string, but spacing between
adjacent hammers will be close to optimum, with respect to avoiding rubbing.
The most efficient way to do this is by sections, doing every other hammer:
Thread a strip of wood between every other shank: that is, insert the wood while
pushing forward every other shank in turn, so that the strip is supporting half the
hammers in the section. The strip should be of a size that will push those hammers to
let off distance when slid down toward the butt, about 1/2 5/8. A little sandpaper
on each edge will help hold it in place. Then center each of the hammers being held
forward (every other hammer) between its neighbors as described above. Remove the
strip of wood, let the hammers go back to rest position, a burn shanks so that the
crowns are evenly spaced. Then repeat the operation for the other half of the hammers
(all even hammers, alternating with all odd hammers). This goes quite a bit more
quickly than doing them individually.
Filing
After traveling and squaring, the hammers must be filed, because the grooves
(if any) will have moved relative to the strings, and in order to produce a smooth and
straight surface to the strings. Upright filing presents the problem of the dampers
being in the way. I prefer to file with individual strips of sanding film (polyester film
with precision sized abrasive particles, available from Pianoforte Supply). Regular
sandpaper backed with tape can be substituted. The bottom side of the hammers can
be filed with the dampers and hammers in rest position, and the stiff film makes it
easier to get the strip to go back and forth, a finger pressing on the strip to control its
pressure on the pull stroke. For the tops of the hammers, the dampers should be raised
using the lift rod (shim out with a rubber wedge or something similar). Raise each
hammer in turn to a point that clears the dampers. To get more room and allow for
supporting the hammer better, remove the damper restricting rail (sometimes also the
spring rail). Even if it is a spring rail, it is not too hard to remove and replace. This also
gives access for shoulder voicing.
Always check your work with a straight edge, and adjust as necessary. The
hammer line across the crowns must be perfectly straight, every hammer perfectly
square, so that the hammer will strike the strings squarely.

Voicing and related procedures

Voicing
Upright hammers need voicing as much as grand hammers to produce the best
tone quality. The same principles that are used for grand hammers apply equally to
uprights. Essentially, the first step is to open up the shoulders with deep needling: pre-
voicing.
Depending on the particular design of the action brackets, it may be necessary
to have supports for the brackets themselves. We want to lay the action down on the
bench, with dampers and hammers up, checks and bridles down. With some pianos
this can be done without the wippens bearing on the bench. If not, a couple blocks may
be needed under the feet of the brackets, and possibly by the hammer rail as well. I
have developed an easily made jig that supports all brackets I have come across,
essentially a length of 1 x 2 (about 1 foot), with a groove chiseled to hold the bottom
foot of the bracket. A 2 piece of 1 x 2, with a dowel drilled and glued to its center, is
inserted into one of three holes toward the top of the 1 x 2, placed so as to support the
portion of the bracket that lies under the hammer rest rail.
Once the action lying placed securely on the bench, a jig is needed to supply
support to the hammerheads. This jig can be as simple as a length of 2 x 4 plus a length
of 1 x 4 cut to an appropriate length, with additional shims as needed, set in place
under the hammers. It needs to be thick enough to raise the hammers to about let off
position, clearing the dampers. The dampers should be pressed back with their lift
rod, using something like a tuning wedge to hold them in that position, to give access
to more of the hammer surface. Sometimes it makes sense to remove the spring rail or
the rail limiting damper travel to gain more space.
It will now be possible to stand over the hammers and lean the voicing needles
into the hammers (using body weight to press them into the felt). The workbench
should be at an appropriate level to make this comfortable, somewhat low (or one can
stand on a low stool if the available bench is too high).
Hammers are often too hard to press a three-needle voicing tool deeply into the
felt. The needles should penetrate about 6 - 9 mm each insertion. If it isnt possible, or
is too difficult, to do this with three needles, remove one needle from one side of the
tool and use two needles for the pre-voicing of the shoulders.
With two needles, the pattern to follow is to make two rows of two-needle
insertions - a row up each half of the width of each hammer - so you end up with four
evenly spaced needle insertions across the whole width of the hammer, done multiple
times. Generally speaking, ten insertions in each row (from the shoulder up towards
the crown) will be a good starting point, so there will be 20 insertions per side of each
hammer (40 total individual needle insertions per side). The area to be needled starts
midway in the hammer felt (where it bulges the most) and extends up to about 4 mm
from the center of the crown. This takes me usually 1.5 - 2 hrs, and opens up the
shoulders enough to allow for three-needle voicing if additional shoulder work is
needed.
Once all the hammers have been pre-voiced, the hammers should be filed
lightly, taking care to keep the crowns very straight and even. The action is now
installed in the piano for voicing. For this work, a single needle is usually the most
appropriate. A needle tool with a sharp angle is best for the under side, while the top is
most efficiently done with an ergonomic tool used commonly in Europe (and available
from Pianoforte Supply). In general, it should only be necessary to needle in the area
approaching the crown at this point.

Leveling strings
As in grand pianos, it is more efficient and logical to level the strings before
mating the hammers. Strings will tend to be badly out of level, and mating each
hammer to a custom contour is time-consuming. If the strings are in a plane, mating
will go much faster, and when the hammers are filed later, after wear, the process of re-
mating will go much more smoothly.
Ideally, one might put the piano on its back and use a level operating by gravity,
as on a grand. This is not terribly convenient in most cases, so I use a weak magnet.
Even a weak magnet will pull the strings into a plane, so it must be used close to the v-
bar rather than at the strike point to be effective. The magnet should be about as weak
as will hold firmly onto the strings, and must be machined flat (if it isnt already). A
stronger magnet can be made weaker by placing a strip of steel (eg., 1/8 square
stock) between it and the string.
With the magnet on the strings of a three string unison, pluck the strings.
Determine which string(s) should be lowered toward the plate. Place a brass drift on
that string near the v-bar and tap lightly with a hammer. Re-check and repeat as
needed. This should take no more than about 30 45 minutes, and is time well spent.
Mating hammers to strings
Precise mating of the hammer surface to the strings is essential to good tone,
and this applies to uprights as well as to grands. Perhaps we dont always need to be
quite as meticulous, just as with travel, but attention should definitely be paid, and the
tonal results will be worth it.
Begin by propping the damper pedal with a wedge to hold all dampers away
from the strings. Each hammer in turn should be very sensitively pressed to the string
with the tip of a finger, acting either on the hammer tail or perhaps on the shank. The
hammer should just touch the strings, and the strings are now plucked. I find the best
thing for plucking is a piece of music wire, perhaps held in a dowel. It gives a very
moderate and high pitched (rich in upper partials) pluck, that reveals mating problems
well, and can get into tight places. Back off the pressure on the hammer until all strings
bleed just a very little. If any string or strings bleed more than others, the hammer
needs to be filed a bit: file a little on the crown at the point where the hammer touched
the string(s) that were muted (this will allow the part of the hammer that corresponds
to the open string to approach its string).
A nice tool for this job is a thin strip of wood, maybe 1/8 x 1/2 x 5, tapered to a
point at one end. Apply 220 paper to one side, 400 to the other. Drill a hole at the point
and insert a piece of music wire to pluck strings.
Mating hammers to strings may be done before the final voicing, but must also
be done as the final step, as inserting needles may affect the mating. Good mating is
essential to clarity of tone and avoidance of certain timbres that occur when the
strings are struck unevenly.

Some shortcuts
Sometimes there isnt enough time to do things the best way, and we need to
find alternatives. When hammers are far too hard, but a thorough voicing job is out of
the question due to time and financial constraints, other methods may be appropriate.
I have experimented with alcohol and fabric softener with positive results. I use 91%
isopropyl mixed with unscented Downy softener (the only unscented softener I have
found in my area) in about a 5:1 mix. This can be applied heavily to the shoulders to
make them far easier to insert needles. Enough should be applied to soak into the area
you want the needles to penetrate (but not up into the crown). It makes 3 needle
insertion very fast and effortless in many cases. I believe the fabric softener reduces
the friction caused by static electricity. More recently I have used lanolin dissolved in
lacquer thinner in the same way. The lanolin will dissolve much better if heated so that
it becomes liquid (in a hot water bath). This has been very promising, but I have only
done it for a few months so far. Since it is a natural ingredient in wool, and is removed
when the wool is processed, this seems like a very natural way to go.
I have also experimented with alcohol and softener directly on the crown. In
this case, I use Isopropyl 70% (ie, 30% water) and softener, again about 5:1, and apply
enough to soak down a couple millimeters right on the crown. After drying over night,
the harsh edge will have been taken off the tone quality, but there will still be adequate
power. You should experiment with smaller amounts and in less prominent areas of
the piano (or less important instruments) to find out what will work for you. I have
found that this holds up fairly well over a period of time (a couple years in practice
room use). Other options I have tried with some success include steaming and voice
grips. I have not had consistent enough results with these methods, but they are still in
my bag of tricks.